French Impressions: Dana Wielgus on studying, living and volunteering abroad
18 Wednesday Jul 2012
Alice Kaplan Dreaming in French, Anthony Bourdain quote, Caen, English as a Second Language ESL, expatriates, France, francophile, Francophone, franglais, French, French style, globalization, Harry Potter, Japan, Jessica Valenti, living abroad, Napoleon Bonaparte quote, Normandy, study abroad, Travel, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, volunteering abroad
Dana Wielgus, student at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, is pursuing degrees in French and ESL (English as a Second Language) Education. At twenty-two and with only a semester to go, Dana is looking forward to completing her student teaching in January. It is her goal to embark on a new chapter teaching overseas.
During her sophomore year of college, Dana studied a semester abroad in Caen, France. She also spent last summer interning as an English Teacher/Camp Counselor in Fukuoka, Japan. A self-proclaimed Francophile, Dana has deep passions for travel, diversity, languages, and different cultures. Becoming a French teacher appeals to Dana because she wants to have the opportunity to educate and inspire young people about the world, in hopes that it positively influences them in the same way as it has influenced her. Besides traveling and all things French, Dana enjoys promoting social activism, blogging, exercising, and fashion.
AWP: What is it about France and women?
DW: As Americans, I feel that we are fed very specific, media-controlled images of French women: skinny, chic, fashionable, sexy, and confident. In addition, the French in general have a reputation of being quite blunt, and just telling it like it is; in the USA we are sometimes the complete opposite. For example, Americans tend to stick to the Golden Rule instead of expressing negative opinions to our friends and families. Additionally, our ideas and expectations about sexuality and body image are very different, as are our ideas regarding fashion and style. As stereotypical as it sounds, French women sometimes have a certain “je-ne-sais-quoi,” solely because of cultural differences between our two countries.
AWP: Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), Emperor of the French and reactionary pragmatist regarding women said in a letter written in 1795: A woman, in order to know what is due her and what her power is, must live in Paris for six months. In what way does this hold true with your experience? How do we understand this statement today?
DW: I think the phrase should be slightly altered to read, “A woman, in order to know what is due her and what her power is, must live in Paris abroad for six months.” As many times as people say it over and over, studying, living or volunteering abroad changes your entire perspective on life. There is a quote by Anthony Bourdain that I love: “If you’re twenty-two, physically fit, hungry to learn and be better, I urge you to travel—as far and widely as possible. Sleep on floors if you have to. Find out how other people live and eat and cook. Learn from them—wherever you go.” This is my piece of advice for every young person.
Adventures and growth begin at the edge of your comfort zone—I have grown so much from my experiences with solo travel. As a future teacher, I’ve noticed that many education classes emphasize diversity and inclusion, and I myself have experienced being the one who doesn’t speak the language or understand a certain cultural norm. Traveling gives you confidence which gives you power.
AWP: Some expatriates are predisposed, each in their own way, toward France; through fantasy, family or a cultural context. Some may have already held a piece of their narrative. How was that the same for you?
DW: My mother has been teaching high school French for 25 years, and as a young child I remember always wanting to speak French like her. I started taking French in 8th grade (almost 10 years ago!) and had a natural knack for the language—thinking back it is clear that French was always my favorite subject. As a teenager I secretly toyed with the idea of becoming a French teacher (but being a teenage girl, being like my mother was the last thing I wanted to do—sorry, Maman!)
Our house has always been filled with France memorabilia: paintings, a bistro on our front porch, Fleur-de-lis wallpaper, photographs of France, and other various odds-and-ends. In all actuality, I never really came to appreciate these things until after I returned from my semester abroad. My mother and I share a special bond over French culture, and although we want to take different directions with our respected degrees, I believe that it has brought us closer. I do not think I would have even rekindled my love for France during my first few years of college had it not been for my mother. She helped me a lot in finding the perfect study abroad program (I was so set on studying in London). However, had I not gone to Normandy, I have no doubt that I would not be where I am now.
In addition to my mother, my maternal grandmother travels internationally all the time. I think she has been to almost 70 countries, and she is only 75 years old! She has this awesome map hanging up in her house, with pins marking everywhere she has been in the world—I aspire to be just like her, too!
AWP: How has the idea of study abroad changed since you went? Do you think the new technologies make a true study abroad experience obsolete?
DW: If anything, I believe that technology is only helping us to enhance our study abroad experiences. The world is so interconnected that I believe universities are selling the appeal to study, volunteer, work, or intern abroad now more than ever!
With technologies such as Google Maps, YouTube, Facebook, Skype, Twitter, Instagram, and blogs, it is so easy to find pictures and resources about a different city, country, or foreign language. Global networking is now more of a reality than ever before. Additionally, there are so many apps for helping people adapt to foreign cities when traveling.
For example, I have three different apps for French Radio stations; I can live-stream any station in France at any time of day, anywhere in the world. There are also translation apps, dictionary apps, and even great language apps. I downloaded one amazing free app on my iPad called “MetrO,” which is fantastic. It lists all the major cities with public transportation systems. You pick the city you are going to, and pick your destination (for example—How to get from Notre Dame Cathedral to Le Centre Pompidou) and the app will tell you which buses or trams or subways to take, when to change, etc. It’s amazing! Finally, almost all major Hostel websites have apps, as do major airlines and trains, which makes planning trips a lot easier. Even though live experiences cannot be replaced by anything technology can produce, I believe that the use of any technology will help to better teach and inspire young people (or people of any age) to see the world.
AWP: What do you think today’s women, and men, living abroad as students bring to the French?
DW: If anything, I believe the presence of foreigners in France helps to break down stereotypes and promote positive globalization and curiosity. Americans have preconceived notions about people from different countries, just as people from different countries have different notions about Americans. Interacting with each other, the Americans and French are able to toss aside stereotypes and truly learn about each other on a personal level. The exchange may teach people not to judge a book (or country) by its cover (or media-portrayed stereotypes). For example, the families I stayed with in France and Japan hosted students almost every year, but I truly believe each of us brought something new and different to their tables. All of my host families taught me so much, and looking back I realize how much I taught them as well. Visiting a country is one thing, but integrating yourself into the country, and developing relationships with its citizens is so much more powerful and long lasting.
AWP: Several of our contributors have lived abroad as students or have taught school in France or Francophone countries. Many followers are preparing to study or live abroad. What would you say to them?
DW:I would say:
Take the time to see the country you are in. When I studied abroad for the first time at the age of 19, I was so eager to see all of Europe in 4 months. I wanted to come back to the states with an infinite list of countries visited, cities stayed in. Though I made quite an impressive dent, during that time, I forgot to focus on France, and France has so much to offer! I spent a lot of time getting to know Normandy and Paris, but I forgot all about the other areas of France because I was too busy hopping borders (not that I regret any of it!) As I said before, visiting places is great, but integrating yourself into a community is so much more meaningful (use the weekends to travel around your own region: use your long two-week breaks to hop the border!) I made a point of extensively visiting Japan whilst in Asia, instead of hopping from one country to the next. I do not regret my decision at all!
Speak French. This seems so blatantly obvious, but because it can be so hard to break into French social circles, it is so easy to stick with your American friends and speak English all day (luckily I lived with a host family). Read books, listen to the radio, go to the movies, change your language settings on Facebook, send texts in French—whatever it takes!
Buy a carte 12-25; it will save you loads of money on trains.
Don’t bring your American cell phone, just purchase one when you get to France (trust me.)
Blog your experiences, and take pictures—these are memories you won’t want to forget. Plus, a blog is way classier than Facebook.
AWP: In your youth, what did you imagine your adult life would hold? What influenced this vision?
DW: I will admit, I always imagined myself as a teacher. When I was in middle school I toyed with the idea of being an interior designer, but I think teaching always sort of stuck with me. I was a huge Harry Potter fan, (okay, I still am) so reading about the faraway land of London just fascinated me—I was into travel early and always dreamed of moving to England just like Hermione Granger (gosh I know, I’m such a geek!) As a kid, I think I imagined myself married with kids, but today that image doesn’t really suit me. Maybe one day I’ll be ready for that, but now more than ever in my early twenties I am so ready to be single and traveling the world, living my dreams as I see fit!
AWP: What is the last book you read. Would you recommend it? Why?
DW: He’s a Stud, She’s a Slut, and 49 Other Double Standards Every Woman Should Know, by Jessica Valenti. Yes, but before this I would definitely recommend Jessica Valenti’s first book, Full Frontal Feminism. It truly opens your eyes to realities of being a woman in today’s American society.
AWP: Was being stylish important to you growing up? Is it now?
DW: Absolutely, to both questions! However, when I was a teenager, I was much more concerned with conforming to fashion trends, whereas today I am much more confident in myself as a person and defining my own unique, individual style. I think a person’s style and outward presentation says a lot about who she is as an individual. And let’s be honest, when you look good, you feel better!
AWP: How do you define style or fashion?
DW: Style or fashion is a current popular trend, which altered or tailored by the individual who sports the look, depending on price and quality of the item, as well as the height, weight, size, etc. of the person.
AWP: Tell me about your cooking and eating habits and traditions.
DW: I love food, but I am a terrible cook, and I hate cooking! Hopefully one day I will marry a chef, or be rich enough to hire one! As a college student, I’m still at the ramen-noodles-every-night-for-dinner phase, but I always try to eat healthy. I love fruit and could eat an entire carton of strawberries in one sitting, no problem. As for traditions, my family actually does not have many. We just make a point to get together during the holiday season, which is plenty. When I was a kid, we used to go bowling every Thanksgiving!
AWP: What was your most memorable meal to date?
DW: I would have to say the surprise strawberry chocolate cake that my host mom made me for my twentieth birthday when I was living in France was probably the best I’ve ever had!
AWP: What is in your refrigerator right now?
DW: Strawberries, grapes, yogurt, green apples, wheat bread, sandwich meat, skim milk, orange juice, cottage cheese, hot dogs, eggs, string cheese and condiments!
AWP: If you were at a dinner party what questions would you be asked?
DW: “Is your curly hair natural? Where did you get your curly hair from?” (Yes, and no idea), “How tall are you?” (4’11.5”)
Visit Dana’s blog: http://www.expatmondiale.wordpress.com
You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, French Impressions: Alice Kaplan – the Paris years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis, on the process of transformation. Author and professor of French at Yale University, Ms. Kaplan shares her new book, Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis, on the process of transformation. By entering into the lives of three important American women who studied in France, we learn how their year in France changed them, and how they changed the world because of it. (French)
What’s in a Word? There’s more to French class than you thought. Jacqueline Bucar, French teacher and immigration attorney, invites us to stimulate a way of thinking and learning that expands our understanding of the world and ourselves through the study of a foreign language. She shares “what’s in a word,” a way of thinking, a “mentality” that helps define the people who speak it and their culture.
Why on earth would you want to teach French? Be practical, it’s a tough job market out there, is a common saying writer Dana Wielgus heard from classmates, friends, and family. Frustrated, saddened by comments like these only made her more determined. Including a list of resources.
Vive La Femme: In defense of cross-cultural appreciation, by writer Kristin Wood who finds Francophiles around the world divided about Paul Rudnick’s piece entitled “Vive La France” in the New Yorker magazine. As is often the case with satires, there is a layer of truth to the matter that is rather unsettling. Included are the comments from readers worldwide. (French)
What is a French Woman? The eternal mystery. by Canadian writer Philippa Campsie who writes about discovering Paris through its women. The vague undefined notion we have of Frenchness, which at the very least is empathically not English or North American, but beyond that, generalizations break down. So the eternal mystery is not about appearances, as much as we may like to imagine that Frenchwomen look a certain way.
Franglais: Modern French-English words, by Canadian writer Philippa Campsie who writes that many French speakers are appalled by franglais, but there are those, like us, who find it fascinating. Included is a useful vocabulary of French to English translations for franglais, where you’ll find words like, “les baskets: sneakers or trainers–literally, the shoes worn to play basket ball,” which is one of our favourites.
A Woman’s Paris — Elegance, Culture and Joie de Vivre
We are captivated by women and men, like you, who use their discipline, wit and resourcefulness to make their own way and who excel at what the French call joie de vivre or “the art of living.” We stand in awe of what you fill into your lives. Free spirits who inspire both admiration and confidence.
Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening. — Coco Chanel (1883 – 1971)
Text copyright ©2012 Dana Wielgus. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.